Politics & Policy

Cheerless, and Worse

Edward Said's aesthetics of destruction.

When the late Edward Said glimpsed Jean Genet, it was something like love at first sight:

He seemed absolutely at rest, rather like the portrait of him by Giacometti, who caught the man’s astounding combination of storminess, relentless control, and almost religious stillness. What I have never forgotten was the gaze of Genet’s piercing blue eyes: they seemed to reach out across the distance and fix you with an enigmatic and curiously neutral look.

#ad#That was at Columbia University in 1970, where Genet–the French novelist, playwright, sometime thief and prostitute, and champion of Palestinian “resistance”–had come to speak at a Black Panther rally. Alas, Said would gaze at those piercing blue eyes only from afar–until Genet visited him and his wife two years later in Beirut, where “the conversation went on for hours, punctuated by what seemed to me to be Genet’s long, puzzling, yet compellingly impressive silences.” Said declines to reveal whether Genet turned water into wine, but we mustn’t rule it out.

This valentine might seem strange, stuffed as it is into a collection of essays at least nominally devoted to music and literary criticism. What, pray tell, do Genet’s blue eyes have to do with his writing? Then again, the posthumously published On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain is less a formulation of anything so banal as an idea as it is a paean to Whatever Edward Said Likes.

And what Said likes very much is destruction. He usually prefers his destruction in the abstract. Thus from an altitude of about 80,000 feet we get: “Much more important than commitment to a cause, much more beautiful and true, [Genet] says, is betraying it, which I read as another version of his unceasing search for the silence that reduces all language to empty posturing, all action to theatrics.” (We could pause to reflect on the absurdity of a man who makes his living with words praising another man who makes his living with words for reducing language to empty posturing. But let it go.) Occasionally, however, Said’s destruction touches down on earth. So it’s off to the Levant, where “the beauty and exuberance of the Palestinian intifada“–that “movement of regenerative rebellion”–shows Genet “a new language, not of orderly communication, but of astonishing lyricism,” advancing his project of transforming language “from a force for identity and statement into a transgressive, disruptive, and perhaps even consciously evil mode of betrayal.” In Plato’s scala amoris, the soul’s striving for beauty leads toward moral goodness; for Genet and Said, it ends in the bang of the suicide bomb. Ah, progress.


Mercifully, the equation of beauty and evil doesn’t run the length of Said’s book: His thoughts are too disorganized for that. In fact, Said isn’t much interested in morality; minus his little hymn to evil, aesthetics is all. What does mar the book from cover to cover is its assumption that the only interesting conflicts–whether moral or aesthetic–are external. Man-against-world is what excites Said: so we get Palestinians resisting Israeli “imperialism,” and Genet resisting the tyranny of communication, lumped together in one undifferentiated revolt. The people Said loves are rebels–and if they’re not, he does his damnedest to make them such.

The pity of this is that it stunts his answer to what could have been a fertile question. In the book’s introductory essay, he poses the question like this:

Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?

From here, Said launches into a series of case studies, each devoted to a work of artistic “lateness.” This lateness is chronological, as most of the examples come from their creators’ final periods of productivity; but lateness for Said also means “untimeliness,” “self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it.” What he wants is “to explore the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against . . .”

But it’s far from clear that Said’s artists were going against anything. Sometimes the shoe almost fits: There’s little question that Glenn Gould, in abandoning the concert hall for the recording studio, was rejecting the demands placed on the modern virtuoso; or that Così fan tutte has something mischievous to say about received notions of love and fidelity (although one hastens to add that neither Gould nor Mozart wanted to overturn the rigors of his discipline so much as expand them). Elsewhere, Said wrenches his examples into place so violently that they end up disfigured almost beyond recognition. Nowhere is this more evident than in his thoughts on Beethoven.


These thoughts owe a heavy debt to–or, better, should carry a heavy grudge against–Theodor Adorno. “What has evidently gripped Adorno in Beethoven’s late work,” explains Said, “is its episodic character, its apparent disregard for its own continuity. If we compare a middle-period work, such as the Eroica [Symphony,] with the opus 110 [piano] sonata, we will be struck with the totally cogent and integrative driven logic of the former and the somewhat distracted, often extremely careless and repetitive character of the latter.” Here the argument is already on shaky footing. That Beethoven’s late works are more episodic than his earlier ones is true enough, but this “late” style is a natural outgrowth of Beethoven’s early and middle periods, which produced more than a few startling contrasts: Think of that lone oboe materializing out of the ether in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. And it’s simply foolish to dismiss the enormously complex structures of the final string quartets and piano sonatas as “distracted” or “careless.”

But let us press bravely forward to discover just what Beethoven’s late style is supposed to mean. “In Beethoven’s middle-period opera Fidelio–the quintessential middle-period work–the idea of humanity is manifest throughout, and with it an idea of a better world.” True. “Similarly for Hegel, irreconcilable opposites were resolvable by means of the dialectic, with a reconciliation of opposites, a grand synthesis, at the end.” Also true. “Late-style Beethoven keeps the irreconcilable apart, and in so doing[, says Adorno,] ‘music is transformed more and more from something significant into something obscure–even to itself.’ Thus late-style Beethoven presides over music’s rejection of the new bourgeois order.” Huh?

What would Said have us make of the Ninth Symphony, that quintessential late work which, with its ecstatic hope of Alle Menschen werden Brüder, is nothing less than a diapason to “the idea of humanity” and “the idea of a better world”? This Beethoven is very much the Enlightenment liberal who wrote Fidelio and championed the “new bourgeois order” over the old aristocratic one.

And as antidote to Said’s silly notion that the episodic character of the late works denies the possibility of “transcendence or unity,” and is even “catastrophic,” consider the third movement of the Quartet in A Minor (Op. 132). We find sharp contrasts, yes, but they express precisely the relief of tension. Beethoven even gave this relief expression in words: Having just recovered from a serious illness, he subtitled the movement “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity.” It is divided into alternating episodes: chant-like passages in the Lydian mode that express the “holy song,” and dance-like tonal sections that, according to Beethoven’s tempo marking, suggest the convalescent’s “feeling new strength.” The overall effect is to convey something like the peace which passes all understanding. Whatever this is, it’s far indeed from “nonharmonious, nonserene tension.”


My purpose isn’t just to claim that Said is wrong about Beethoven, but to illustrate how he is wrong: for the particular brand of wrongness runs to the heart of his criticism. In his quest to make Beethoven an “exile,” an artist alienated “from the established social order” and its “bourgeois” values, Said reveals himself to be a man seduced by iconoclasm for its own sake. This goes a long way toward explaining his bizarre failure to spot resolution and peace where they are plainly evident. More to the point, it illuminates his tendency to understand artistic tension as a struggle between artist and society, or even as crude political combat.

But it doesn’t quite account for the strain of sadness one feels reading On Late Style. That comes instead from one’s impression of Said as a man so intoxicated by the sound and the fury of the bomb, the protest rally, the screaming collision of art and politics, that he can’t explore the province which belongs to art alone: the release of the artist’s inner tensions through the act of creation. How else could it be that, in a discussion of Death in Venice, Said devotes pages to the meaning of Venice as history, as meeting of extremes, as “quasi-Platonic sovereign republic” yet “city of prisons, sinister police forces, internal dissension, tyranny,” but only a few paragraphs to the crushing individual pathos in Thomas Mann’s story of an aging writer destroyed by the war between his wholly internal need for aesthetic and moral order and the no less internal chaos of his erotic passion? Mann practically begs us to notice that what matters is happening inside Gustav von Aschenbach: By refusing to let the protagonist so much as speak to the 14-year-old Tadzio, he gives us nowhere to look but into Aschenbach’s soul. Why is Said so reluctant to look there?

In this volume of essays about tension and contradiction, Said scarcely offers a page on the artistic possibilities of the personality divided against itself. And that failure stops him from considering the class of art–infinitely subtler and more interesting than most of his examples–that peers unflinchingly into the greatest tension of all, the will’s confrontation with its finitude, but resolves nevertheless to sing.

How one longs in these pages for T. S. Eliot, building his faith from the ruins of his doubt. One longs for the terminally ill Mahler at work on his Ninth Symphony, that death-laden thing which, in an agonizing simultaneity of irrecoverable loss, undiminished love, and peace, embraces the very life it must surrender. One longs especially for Nietzsche, that embodiment of tumult transmuted into creation, that man who drank as deeply from the cup of despair as anyone ever has and yet answered with laughter, with the joyful declaration that what is needed, above all, is “cheerfulness, any cheerfulness.”

It is not the least of Edward Said’s failings that his criticism makes an exile of good cheer. No wonder those suicide bombers looked beautiful.

Jason Lee Steorts is the deputy managing editor of National Review.

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